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Commentaries and editorials

Columbia River: Why it May
Be Time to Let Some Dams Tumble

by Daniel Jack Chasan
Crosscut, July 24, 2014

The federal government doesn't want to hear about wrecking dams. Idaho doesn't either.

Lower Granite Dam in SE Washington state impounds the Lower Snake forty miles up beyond the Idaho border. The federal government's Biological Opinion on operation of its Columbia River system dams, issued in January and challenged -- inevitably -- by a coalition of conservation and fishing groups last month, skips over an inconvenient fact. As average water temperatures rise, the only spawning streams in the interior Columbia Basin cool enough for salmon spawning may lie in the mountains of Idaho, above the four lower Snake River dams.

Stream temperatures in Western Washington and Oregon may not rise much, but inland, climate experts foresee fish dealing with increased "thermal stress." In general, water temperature decreases with elevation, so Idaho streams a mile or more above sea level may give some fish populations their best chance. Redfish Lake, named for the sockeye that became the first Columbia River salmon population on the endangered species list, lies at 6,547 feet. But fish that spawn there must pass those four dams.

Salmon advocates have long argued for breaching the dams. And they are becoming impatient with the endless attempts of the federal government, under both the Bush and Obama administrations, to avoid disussing the issue.

A few years ago, the Western Division of the American Fisheries Society passed a resolution saying, "If society-at-large wishes to restore Snake River salmon, steelhead, Pacific lamprey, and white sturgeon to sustainable, fishable levels, then a significant portion of the lower Snake River must be returned to a free-flowing condition by breaching the four lower Snake River dams."

The conservation and fishing groups' complaint regarding the current Biological Opinion (BiOp) doesn't raise the issue of breaching directly. It does cite a 2009 letter from now-retired U.S. District Judge James Redden, who rejected the last three federal BiOps, to the attorneys on both sides. Redden complained that the previous, rejected BiOp, which the current version largely mirrors "does not articulate a rational contingency plan for threatened and endangered species in the event that the proposed habitat improvements and other remedial actions fail to achieve the survival benefits necessary to avoid jeopardy.” Redden suggested developing a plan to study "specific, alternative hydro actions, such as flow augmentation and/or reservoir drawdowns, as well as what it will take to breach the lower Snake River dams if all other measures fail.” No one took him up on that.

The new complaint does call for an environmental Impact statement (EIS), which would require a listing and assessment of alternatives. The plaintiffs think that any honest weighing of alternatives would at least put breaching on the table.

The plaintiffs increasingly think the benefits of the dams have always been exaggerated and the costs of removing them minimized. They think that the economic advantages of keeping the dams are actually shrinking. If there's an honest analysis done," Bogaard says, "it will quickly become evident that the dams have far less value and far greater cost than we've been told."

The dams generate power and support a lock system that allows barge traffic from Portlland or other ports near the Columbia's mouth to reach Lewiston, Idaho, which once overlooked the free-flowing Snake River and now overlooks the lake backed up behind Lower Granite Dam. The Port of Lewiston calls itself "the most inland seaport on the West Coast."

The amount of carbon-free power generated is significant -- 4 percent of the dam system's total -- but not crucial. The Northwest Power and Conservation Council's current regional plan suggests that if it disappeared, Northwestern ratepayers would never know the difference: The region's average cost per kilowatt-hour would rise a bit, but because the region would use electricity more efficiently, the number of kilowatt-hours will go down. So, that even without those dams, the average monthly electric bill would be lower than it is now.

The barge traffic wouldn't be widely missed, either, critics say. They argue that barge traffic has been declining, and that despite brave promises made years ago, the port has never become self-sustaining. In fact, they say, that the port requires annual tax revenues to stay in business. "That's not true," says Port manager Dave Doeringsfeld. He says that Lewiston's marine operations are self-sustaining; the port uses tax revenue to finance its economic development work. (Not that levying taxes makes Lewiston unique: The Port of Seattle has been criticized for the amount of tax money it raises every year.)

Related Pages:
Are the Feds Simply Shielding Columbia River Dams from Wrecking Balls? by Daniel Jack Chasan, Crosscut, 7/24/14


Daniel Jack Chasan
Columbia River: Why it May Be Time to Let Some Dams Tumble
Crosscut, July 24, 2014

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